TBC 3: Trading Control for Authority

February 16, 2015 § 4 Comments

In this series we have been exploring the hypothesis that Transforming the Bay with Christ (TBC) would be most effective if structured as a platform designed for effective governance. Please note that these essays are purely an intellectual exercise on my part; I have no formal connection with or deep knowledge of TBC.

When designing systems of governance, the most important question is who holds which kinds of power. That is part of the genius of the American system of democracy: for all its flaws, the division of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial has produced a remarkably resilient (if horribly inefficient) system. In our last post, we focused on who holds the power. Now we will focus on which power is held.

Being an Organization

It may seem obvious, but it is still worth noting the TBC is an organization. They have a mission, sponsors, resources, officers, personnel, etc.

An organization is not the only option TBC’s founders could have chosen to pursue their goal of regional transformation. They might have:

  • written a book
  • produced a movie
  • launched a grant-making foundation
  • held a giant workshop to publish a manifesto.

Of course, for all I know those projects are already in the works. But for the moment, all that we can see from the outside is an organization. And being an organization, rather than just a project, creates a very powerful set of incentives that need to be navigated.

Organizational Flows

In particular, every organization’s health is driven by three flows:

  • Money (resources)
  • Power (actions)
  • Ideas (data)

Over time, as (and if) the organization matures, all three flows become more closely aligned with each other and the structure of the organization. Just like the blood, muscles, and nerves of a human body.

But when building a platform, we have to reverse that process by giving up control over those flows:

  • Open platforms share their resources
  • Technology platforms outsource their actions
  • Transparent platforms publish their data

In fact, the more control they give up, the stronger the platform becomes. Or put another way, the stronger the platform, the less control the organization has!

This implies that leaders who want to build a platform need to start thinking of ourselves as stewards of an ecosystem rather than heads of an organization.  We must shift our focus from building up the organization to enabling the ecosystem.  In other words, from avoiding risk to embracing it!

Example: The World Web Web

Perhaps the best example of this mindset is Tim Berners-Lee, (TBL), the inventor of the World Wide Web: arguably the most successful platform in human history. Tim understood he wanted to create a global platform, and therefore systematically went about finding ways to give up control:

  1. He released his inventions of HTTP and HTML as open source software.
  2. Instead of forming a company to commercialize the web, he built a non-profit foundation (the W3C) to maintain the web’s underlying technologies.
  3. The W3C publishes all their work in the open, even to the point where someone could take it over and displace them.

In fact, that is exactly what happened in 2004, and it saved the web…

Outsourcing Innovation

When several major browser vendors felt the W3C had abandoned the public web in order to focus of enterprise data standards, they formed their own working group. It was so successful, the W3C eventually caved in, resulting in what we know now as HTML5: a key enabling technology for smartphones and the modern web.

This was only possible because Tim Berners-Lee believed that the web was so powerful and important he dare not limit it by his own creativity, intelligence and competence.  He deliberately set things up so that if he failed in his stewardship, the torch could be picked up by anyone with sufficient passion, vision, and ability to execute.

Paradoxically, that very fragility is what saved the web, and ultimately increased his and the W3C’s moral authority. Because the organization’s control is so weak, only ideas that truly engage the membership make it to market. Which reassures people that the final decisions reflect the public’s interest, rather than vested interests.

Transcending Our Selves

From my perspective, that is the central question facing Transforming the Bay with Christ. What are we asking people to put their faith in: our organization, or our mission? And does our structure reflect that claim?

More precisely, I describe it as a choice between two starkly different philosophies.

Least Common Denominator

The Least Common Denominator approach starts with present reality. We find a minimal set of things that the existing players can all agree on, and use that as the basis of cooperation.

This has the advantage of reducing tensions and ensuring all parts of each organization are in alignment with the vision. There is a very good chance of making a positive impact and moving the ball forward.

The downside is that nothing exciting ever happens, because nothing truly new has been created. Existing incentives and structures are unchallenged, so any factors that hindered the success of the mission are still in place.

Greatest Common Factor

The alternative is to build a platform around future possibility.  This requires us to do the incredibly hard work of finding a new common factor. Something we all aspire to, but have never been able to achieve on our own. A vision and mission that, in the final calculus, is even more important to us than the reputation and survival of our existing organizations. A pearl of great price worth giving up everything else to pursue — even control over our own destiny!

The downside of this approach is obvious. Any leader who signs up for such a radical mission is highly likely to find themselves under attack from members of their own organization. It requires questioning, critiquing, and sometimes even rejecting values and policies that have served us well for generations. It invites endless and often unfair inquiries into the leaders’ own character, motives, and past behavior. And unless the those at the top can survive being judged even more harshly than anyone else — crucified, even! — the whole thing is very likely to implode.

What is perhaps less obvious is that this is also the upside! This is exactly to sort of fragility and risk behind Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial spirit. The willingness to reject the status quo, dance on the edge of failure, and embrace the refining fire in order to discover something greater than we could ever have imagined.

Few are brave enough to embark on such an arduous journey.  Fewer still are wise enough to reach their goal. In our next installment, we will talk about how to improve our odds of success.

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